Time after Time: Pesach, History and the Meaning of Time
It was the end of a clear, brisk autumn day. We were driving back to London from Bath and decided to take a detour past Stonehenge to take in the mysterious prehistoric monument. We arrived just as the sun was setting and the giant structure, bathed in the soft light of dusk, was awe-inspiring.
It’s not often that one gets to stand so close to something prehistoric and there is a certain indescribable thrill that accompanies the experience. It was also depressing. Stonehenge captures the essence of pre-historic time, which was cyclical. Prehistoric people were unable to conceive of time, other than as an endless repeating cycle of the seasons. Life had no linear trajectory. No one expected their children’s lives to be any better than their own. The whole notion of progress was absent from the prehistoric world view. The best one could hope for was to make it through another seasonal cycle. Stonehenge, which was presumably erected to measure the winter and summer solstices, stands as a monument to this drab, dead-end perspective.
According to the historian Thomas Cahill, it was the Hebrew Bible that first introduced the world to linear history, to the idea that one was not doomed to repeat an endless series of cycles, but rather that life offered the possibility of progression. Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land depicts not just a linear geographical journey (unlike say, Homer’s Odysseus whose 20-year odyssey takes him right back where he began), but, crucially, it reflects an inner spiritual and intellectual progression which he bequeaths to his descendants, and through them, says Cahill, to mankind.
If Abraham’s journey represents the beginning of linear history for an individual, then Pesach and the Exodus is the start of history for an entire people. Subsequently Jewish festivals reflect this.
Jewish festivals are not just agricultural festivals celebrating the cycle of nature, which all pre-historic societies — the architects of Stonehenge included — would have been familiar with, but crucially they are overlaid with linear historical significance. Pesach is not just a barley harvest festival; it also marks the Exodus of the Children of Israel from slavery, Shavuot celebrates the wheat harvest, but also the anniversary of the revelation on Sinai, and Sukkot goes beyond the fruit harvest celebration by commemorating the 40-year journey to the Promised Land.
Pesach, it can then be said, is the beginning of what the Greeks would call ‘Khronos’ — chronological, sequential time. Yet, paradoxically, the Seder night transcends time altogether and transports one to a state of ‘Kairos,’ indeterminate or transcendent time. The miracle of the Exodus took place at midnight and, as Zeno famously demonstrated with his paradoxes of motion, there is essentially no such thing as midnight. What we call midnight is either a second before or a second after midnight. Splitting seconds gets us no closer to the elusive ‘midnight,’ no matter how small one splits them. There will always be the milliseconds before and the millisecond after, or the centisecond or, dicesecond. Midnight is and is not. And in this indeterminate, caesural moment, the redemption occurred.
But it was more than chronological time that was transcended at that first Seder. In his translation/commentary on Exodus 19:4 the Targum Yonatan introduces the fantastic idea that on the night of the Exodus, God transported the Children of Israel to Jerusalem, where they partook of the paschal lamb, only to return them to Egypt to redeem them in real time.
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on wings of eagles from Pilusin [a town in lower Egypt] and brought you to the place of the [future] temple where you offered your paschal lambs and then that very same night I returned you to Pilusin from which I [then] brought you forth to give you the Torah
What are we to make of this transcendent space-time? Perhaps the message is that even as the Jewish people embark on their linear history, they are shown its inherent limitations and how at special moments they can, and must transcend those limitations. Khronos, writes the contemporary philosopher of religion Richard Kearny, means being ‘on time’ whereas Kairos means being ‘in time.’ Judaism is not just about marking the quantitative passage of time; it is also about learning to fully inhabit qualitative time, and sacred moments such as Seder night is when we stop worrying about being on time and instead celebrate being in time.
There is however one more element to this story of sacred time. The Targum Yonatan leaves us with an obvious question; why would God return the Children of Israel to Egypt after having whisked them to Jerusalem, only to have them spend the next 40 years trying to get to the Promised Land?
Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter of Gur (the Pnei Menachem) takes the incredible image of the Targum Yonatan a step further and links it to the verse in Exodus 12:22 ‘None of you shall go out from the entrance of his house till morning.’ The reason for this curfew, suggests the Pnei Menachem, is because if they walked out of their homes while magically transported to Jerusalem, they would have pre-empted history and entered the Promised Land prematurely short-circuiting God’s plan.
If one can get beyond the almost farcical image of the Jewish homes as Wellsian time machines, the Pnei Menachem is suggesting something very profound. His point is that caesural moments, spiritually enriching as they may be, are not the stuff through which real, lasting transformation occurs.
History can be frustrating and painful, yet it is the only mechanism through which we can improve our world. History cannot be short circuited. Seder night collapses time and space allowing us to glimpse, if not experience, a momentary eschatological reality. But that moment, as exquisite as it may be, is but the inspiration for another year of hard work along a linear journey in which each step leads us towards a better world.